How Producers Can Overcome Persistent Labor Challenges through Packaging Innovation

By Mike Terry
Posted In : Automation, Labor, cobots, collaborative robots, training, labor challenges, labor issues, lean manufacturing, technical support
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People aren’t coming back to work.

The effects of the Great Resignation – a workplace exodus that saw more than 43 million Americans leave their jobs in one year – still echoes across all sectors of industry like a gong with no signs of abating before the closeout of 2022.

According to a recent Deloitte survey, more than 2 million manufacturing jobs could go unfilled through 2030, exasperating the labor crisis, limiting higher levels of productivity, and adding dangerous new levels of cost pressure and continuing product inflation.

Managing and mitigating labor shortages is now top of mind for every managing executive, as high multi-year turnover and unavailable talent continues to take its toll. Its not a matter of simply throwing more workers at lapses in productivity as companies have done in the past (none exists) but attracting and retaining new talent to fill the flood of available positions.

But why? Shouldn’t workers be flocking back to open positions – with higher pay and better benefits – in droves? Reports indicate unemployment has dropped from pandemic levels of 14.8% to 3.6%, leaving jobs open for the taking.

Not necessarily.

Industry sectors such as manufacturing, food production, and Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies find filling available positions and increasing the volume of orders increasingly difficult. As of writing, The Consumer Brands Association (CBA) points out that there are currently 112,000 open positions at CPG firms.

In 2022, the problem is more complex. It is no longer a matter of hourly or annual wages, creative incentives, or benefits. Struggles in labor have now evolved into nothing short of a reimaging of the entire workforce with recovery and new priorities for a new generation of workers at its core.


First, the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over. Not only did the disease infect more than 60,000 workers across the U.S. (with at least 269 confirmed deaths), it created a stigma for manufacturing facilities as a hotbed of sickness. This stigma was and still is especially damaging in small towns where manufacturing is often the lifeblood of industry.

Moreover, the steady flow of available labor has all but dried up. With the virus running rampant as recently as last year, immigrant populations haven’t been able to obtain work visas and cross relatively open borders and return to factories and processing plants – where they made up 1/3 of the workforce.

Retirement & Manufacturing’s Image Problem

Manufacturing Floor

Manufacturing also has a fundamental image problem. Younger generations of workers no longer see the factory and manufacturing jobs of their fathers as a viable career path in-line with their personal career goals, aspirations, or sense of community.

With almost half the manufacturing workforce at retirement age, and more than 10,000 new Baby Boomers reaching retirement age per day, filling vacancies is going to take innovative, extremely attractive measures to bring new bodies onto the processing floor.

A tall order for manufacturing when workers don’t seem to be swayed for any price.

Workers Can’t Be Bought

Can't be boughtSalaries in manufacturing rose 6.9% as of January 2022, yet newfound wealth hardly made a dent in declining workforce numbers.

The reason? Workers are seeing fewer dollar signs and focusing on development. In fact, money’s not even a top consideration.

Overall well-being, including resources for coping with mental health issues industry-wide, takes the top spot, followed by ethical leadership, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. Younger Millennials and GenZ workers are looking for companies that make communication, long-term growth, recognition and value of their talents, and technology key attributes of their modern workplace. Their absence from production facilities, even for the biggest names in the industry, means they aren’t settling for less.

email opt in produce trends


With such a dramatic shift in labor, small producers and major companies alike are pulling out all the stops to find, attract, and retain both skilled and unskilled labor. Names like Tyson, Cargill, and Maple Leaf Foods are leaving no stone unturned, offering everything from improvements in company culture, engagement, and better work-life balance to more time off and dedicated “Mental Health Chaplains” as part of their hiring strategies.

But solving the labor crisis can also be accomplished on a practical scale for producers at almost any level. The key is partnering with an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) with the right solutions to augment your retention efforts and alleviate labor challenges through innovation, continuous education, and training:


AutomationAutomate” may sound like a simple answer to a complex labor crisis. However, so many of the household names in manufacturing employ automation across their various applications – flow wrapping, thermoforming, tray sealing – because it is proven to be the fastest and most efficient way to address and alleviate labor challenges in modern production.

Reaping the most benefits and value from automation is implementing it properly with your partner OEM partner from the onset. Automation experts advise to look for places where you can easily automate labor, with a focus on physically strenuous or repetitive processes, to reduce dependency on a manual workforce.

Simple tasks always make for a superior starting point and show the most prevalence in secondary case packing and palletizing. Observe your process, see where you lose streamlined control of your product, and implement automation for recurring tasks to achieve the improved flexibility and agility to deal with labor gaps.

Properly implementing automation does more than give you a creative way to meet customer demand without attempting to add more non-existent labor. With precise automation in place, you can:

  • Streamline your entire packaging process
  • Boost productivity by up to 22% annually
  • Repurpose existing employees to more advanced, fulfilling positions
  • Implement attractive “future focused” workplace strategies
  • Realize an automation Return on Investment (ROI) in less than TWO years
  • Create potential savings of up to $450 million per year


Collaborative RobotsRobotics and Collaborative Robots (COBOTS) are instrumental in improving output and efficiency, lowering environmental impact, and boosting job satisfaction. Agile, flexible, and versatile, they can be used across a variety of applications within a single system and easily reprogrammed to quickly changeover to execute more than one function with little cost and time penalties.

Like automated systems, robotics and COBOTS are best suited to tasks where manual labor is outdated or no longer applicable or available. Automation analysts recommend integrating robotics at stages where they will provide the most value – secondary packaging for multiple, complex SKUs and palletizing for increased safety – over time.

However, there is more to the benefits of robotics than improved safety, productivity, control, efficiency, and simplified processes.

Through the lens of labor, COBOTS also offer the advanced technology “digital natives” of younger generations need for easy onboarding to reinforce a sense of belonging.

Higher adoption rates of COBOTS over the past year (40-50%) indicate implementing cutting edge technology such as robotics, where human work still plays a vital and collaborative role in solving variation challenges, helps to change negative perceptions of outdatedness and man vs. machine. They are effective tools in creating an attractive, technologically advanced work environment where optimal, long-term career pathing and employee development are the focus.


Lean ManufacturingWhen reducing labor requirements and attracting and retaining talent becomes essential for your operations, simplifying system complexity is key. The more complex and intricate your Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) become, the less likely you are to onboard new employees looking for efficient simplicity in their day-to-day operations.

Integrating lean manufacturing design and layout with your partner packaging OEM makes equipment more intuitive and easier to operate for new and existing labor. As part of Poka-Yoke – fail-safe mechanisms which make future mistakes impossible – workers no longer need to mentally navigate the various production possibilities and outcomes and react in real time. They now only have one possible outcome for each SKU during each process (product loading, secondary packaging, labeling, palletizing, etc.), allowing for improved efficiency and streamlined operations.

Integrate lean manufacturing first with your partner OEM at the design stage. Doing so offers optimal simplicity for your digital Human Machine Interface (HMI), redirecting the complexity of the machine to a more internal and “under the hood” capacity, and relieves the pressure on younger, less experienced workers as they fill gaps for their retired/replaced counterparts.

By implementing lean manufacturing into system design, you can:

  • Increase system flexibility and efficiency
  • Better conserve and manage resources
  • Minimize waste (time, energy, money lost to flaws in the process)
  • Improve production processes & balance
  • Reduce time on training


AR for Training and MaintenanceMachine reliability and technical support from OEMs is essential. As packaging technology improves, it requires higher levels of dedicated service and maintenance, after sale and installation, to optimize system longevity and keep up with customer demand and ever-increasing production.

However, technical support plays another vital role in combating labor challenges that arise from lack of knowledge, training, enablement, and constant turnover of staff.

One of the most significant obstacles to the large-scale adoption of automation and robotics is lack of understanding concerning what they can achieve and how to implement them. Evolving these skill sets among existing operators and maintenance personnel through continuous training is critical to present success and future advancement.

As we have seen, human intervention and participation is still a prerequisite for efficient manufacturing and production. With better education and training, employees can work collaboratively with Artificial Intelligence (AI) to eradicate variation challenges within packaging systems and upskill to more fulfilling and lucrative positions within their company.

Ask your OEM partner to step in on the training front and educate workers on how to properly operate machinery. Tools like Augmented Reality (AR) visualize learning for complicated processes and capture expert knowledge anytime and anywhere, and can be an invaluable asset when:

  • Streamlining employee onboarding
  • Providing training and work instruction
  • Conducting inspection instructions, compliance checklists, and remote collaboration
  • Obtaining real-time performance monitoring and analytics to increase productivity and profitability.

End users want to promote from within. That means more training and development for the new and existing workforce. Staff must stay engaged and “onboard” to counteract higher rates of retirement and lapses in production due to lack of personnel.


Shortages in qualified labor are likely to remain a considerable, ongoing challenge for manufacturing. Implementing sophisticated technological solutions such as automation, robotics, and lean manufacturing design will continue to be pivotal in overcoming inefficiencies and gaps in productivity.

However, adapting to a new, changing workforce culture with new priorities will be equally important. Through continuing support, education, and training you can align your operations with worker values, better prepare them for technological advances, and foster a manufacturing environment of engagement and employee growth.

As your OEM partner, Harpak-ULMA Packaging can help.

Our product to pallet solutions – smart connected machinery, augmented reality, and expert customer service – provide the insight, training, and troubleshooting tools you need to reimagine your production. Working with our experts, you can connect your frontline workers to produce the best value for your business.

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